The Great Trek

Great Trek Whole Country
Great Trek Whole Country

In order to get a feel for the diversity of vegetation and landscapes in South Africa, I planned a 3 week road trip to explore some of the natural areas and botanical gardens across the country.  The Western Cape is recognized as having the highest concentration of endemic plant species and containing the main components of the Cape Floristic bioregion.  Although this region is usually the one most often visited and considered to be of high floristic interest by the international community, the rest of South Africa is also extremely rich in its floral diversity.  With large variation in geology, altitude, seasonal and quantity of rainfall, all of these factors have influenced the various distinct biomes that make up South Africa.  During the trip I visited all of the major biomes focusing on seeing natural areas that represent the unique flora of that particular region.  Biomes included Fynbos, forest, thicket, grassland, savanna, succulent and Nama Karoo.  This post will go through various locations visited throughout the trip.

South Africa Bioregions
South Africa Bioregions
Great Trek Western Cape
Great Trek Western Cape

On the first portion of my journey I headed down to the area known as the Garden Route.  The area has received such a name not for the abundance of cultivated landscapes but for the stretches of coastal forest that dominate the landscape. This area has a distinctively different feel compared to the shrub-dominated West Coast or the sub tropical East Coast.  A popular destination because of the area’s iconic cliffs steeply descending into the ocean and the unique forests, it’s the smallest of any of the biomes in South Africa.

Knysner Heads
Knysner Heads
Gazania ringens Knysner Heads
Gazania ringens Knysner Heads
King Edwards VII a champion Podocarpus falcatus tree in Deepwall Forest Reserve
King Edward VII – a champion Podocarpus falcatus tree in Deepwall Forest Reserve
Olea capensis and towering above the forests providing a feel for the canopy of the area
Olea capensis – towering above the forests providing a feel for the canopy of the area
Flowers of the shrub Trichocladus crinitus a one of South Africas few native species in the Hamamelidaceae family.
Flowers of the shrub Trichocladus crinitus – one of South Africa’s few native species in the Hamamelidaceae family.
Leaves and naked buds of Trichoclauds crinitus. This shrub is one of the dominate species found in the understory of the forest of the Garden route
Leaves and naked buds of Trichoclauds crinitus – this shrub is one of the dominate species found in the understory of the forest of the Garden Route
Natures Valley Nature Reserve
Nature’s Valley Nature Reserve
View of Natures Valley. From this perspective it can be observed that where the picture was taken is principle Fynbos vegetation and the forests that the Garden Route is known for are only found in the valleys and on the slopes of areas almost directly adjancent the ocean.
View of Nature’s Valley – from this perspective it can be observed that growth (where the picture was taken) is principally Fynbos vegetation, and the forests that the Garden Route is known for are only found in the valleys and on the slopes of areas almost directly adjacent the ocean.
Harveya sp.  a parasitic member of the Orobanchaceae family found in the Fynbos components shrublands that grow above the sloping cliffs in the Garden Route Area
Harveya sp. – a parasitic member of the Orobanchaceae family found in the Fynbos components shrublands that grow above the sloping cliffs in the Garden Route area
Another massive yellowwood (Podocarpus falcatus) found in a river valley in Natures Valley area.
Another massive Yellowwood (Podocarpus falcatus) found in a river valley in Nature’s Valley area
Storms River Mouth – Observe the clear delineation between forest on the right and its abrupt transition to Fynbos vegetation farther upslope
Storm River Mouth – observe the clear delineation between forest on the right and its abrupt transition to Fynbos vegetation farther up slope
Storm River Mouth – Costal forest vegetation
Storm River Mouth – Coastal forest vegetation
Fynbos vegetation giving way to coastal forest bellow
Fynbos vegetation – giving way to coastal forest below
Leucospermum sp. growing above Storm River Mouth
Leucospermum sp. – growing above Storm River Mouth

Baviaanskloof is a 1.2 million acre nature reserve located in the Eastern Cape province.  It is a UNESCO World Heritage site featuring both endemic flora and important archeological sites of early human inhabitants.  It is thought that people have inhabited the area for as far back in time as the Middle Stone Age (ca. 100,000 – 30,000 B.C,).  The flora of this region can differ significantly depending on the altitude and exposure of the landscape.  Deep river valleys that often bisect the mountains in the region can support small patches of forest vegetation.  The thicket biome is predominantly covered with shrubs and small trees, many with succulent adaptation.  Considered almost to be a transitional zone, one will find components of many of the other biomes closely associated such as species allied with members of the succulent Karoo in open valleys and hilltops, to forests in riverine gullies to Fynbos elements in the higher mountainous regions.

Bavians Kloof
Baviananskloof

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Aloe Ferox and arid landscape of the South African interior
Aloe Ferox and arid landscape of the South African interior
View of shrub and semi dessert landscape of Baviians Kloof World Heritage Site
View of shrub and semi desert landscape of Baviaanskloof World Heritage Site
Cave used as dwelling site
Cave used as dwelling site
Mouth of Cave
Mouth of cave
Cave rock art
Cave rock art
A water supply in close proximity to cave the aquis plant aponogeton distachyos traditionally eaten as food source in South Africa
A water supply in close proximity to cave – the aqueous plant aponogeton distachyos traditionally eaten as a food source in South Africa

GREAT TREK – East Side

Great Treak - East Cape

Umtamvuna Gorge

Umtamvuna Gorge in the province of KwaZulu-Natal features deep sandstone cliff faces that support coastal forest in the low lands and grasslands on the upper elevations and rims of the canyon.  This and the few other gorges in the region support a high diversity of tree species and endemism; for example, the Oribi Gorge which is less than 60 km (37 miles) with similar geology but only share 24% of the same 1514 angiosperm species. (A synfloristic comparison of Oribi Gorge and Umtamvuna Nature Reserves, T.J. Edwards 1998)  These gorge systems have preserved flora of older plant species lineage,  acting as a site of refuge while also being subject to invasion of the newer lineages of species as climate changed, introducing new flora to the region.

Oribi gorge
Oribi Gorge
Oribi Gorge
Oribi Gorge
Forests in Oribi gorge
Forests in Oribi Gorge
View into the Umtamvuna gorge
View into the Umtamvuna Gorge
Educational sizes identify some of the endemic flora of the Umtamvuna gorge at the local accommodation
Educational sizes identify some of the endemic flora of the Umtamvuna Gorge at the local accommodation
View looking down at the diverse tree canopy of Umtamvuna
View looking down at the diverse tree canopy of Umtamvuna Gorge
High grasslands flanking the gorges and the contrasting forests bellow
High grasslands flanking the gorges and the contrasting forests below

Durban Botanical Gardens

Durban Botanical Gardens sits in the middle of the bustling, busy, third largest city in South Africa.  Located on the Eastern Coast it receives summer rainfall and is considered to be semi tropical in the plant communities it supports.  Durban Botanical Garden is unique for a number of reasons.  It is South Africa’s oldest surviving botanical garden with its establishment in 1851.  It is managed by the city itself and the administration is carried out in coordination with a number of municipal partners.  This is a notable difference from the majority of gardens I have visited up this point with most of them either being private collections or under the purview of the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI).  SANBI gardens such as the internationally known Kirstenbosch are interesting in their own right typically displaying strictly local and native flora and usually containing large natural areas adjacent to the gardens themselves, but do not showcase or grow non-native plants.  Durban Botanical Garden, on the other hand ,grows and has a focus on exotic plants not necessarily native to South Africa or the African continent.  Historically its development had more of a European and British influence with a focus on introduction of plants of economic value into the country and to catalog flora of South Africa for international partners such as the Royal Botanical Gardens Kew.  This English- influenced history can be felt in the garden’s design and historical elements such as the footprint of an old Victorian glass house.  In the past, Durban was noted as playing a major role in the introduction of valuable horticultural crops into the country including sugar cane, coffee and pineapples, many of which are still grown in the farmland around Durban.  The garden effectively acted as a pipeline to help build agrarian practices and support food security in South Africa.  Under the guidance of farmer, botanist and Curator John Medley Wood, the garden undertook the construction of an herbarium to further progress the collecting, identification and exploration of the native flora of the Kwazulu-Natal region.  To date the herbarium is still functioning with over 100,000 specimens, although it is now under the administration by SANBI.

The garden was originally established in 1851 and with a suitable climate to support trees the garden has a well developed arboretum with interesting specimens from across the world.  This, along with the garden’s formal design, gives this landscape a highly unique feel for a South African garden.  In the last few decades the garden was highly diverse in terms of the types of horticulture the institute supported: from extensive ornamental Canna displays and hybridizing dating back to the 1960’s; to growing and displaying a full taxonomic and collection of the genus Erythrina; to anthropologically significant plants such as Ficus religiosa (the fabled  tree under which the Buddha reached enlightenment while meditating); to plant conservation such as growing Encephalartos woodii, a robust tree cycad that is extinct in the wild and only grows in cultivation.  Having such a diversity of plantings and program support is in many ways the ideal for botanical gardens reaching across disciplines and providing an engaging environment that can bring the art and science of horticulture to the public.

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Sunken Garden, remnant of one of the gardens historical elements
Sunken Garden – remnant of one of the garden’s historical elements
Pathway leading up to the former site of victorian style glass house. The tree cycad specimens adjacent to the walk are the extinct in the wild cycad Encephalartos woodii.
Pathway leading up to the former site of Victorian style glass house. The tree cycad specimens adjacent to the walk are  extinct in the wild cycad Encephalartos woodii.
Encephalartos woodii with homo sapian for scale. This magnificent cycad was restricted to a tiny population in the Kwazulu-Natal province.  Only male plants of this species exist today leaving only removal of basal vegetative growth as an effective means of propagation.
Encephalartos woodii with homo sapian for scale – this magnificent cycad was restricted to a tiny population in the Kwazulu-Natal province. Only male plants of this species exist today leaving the removal of basal vegetative growth as the only an effective means of propagation.
ndering path through the cycad collection
Meandering path through the cycad collection
Fern Dell
Fern Dell
The semitropical climate is friendly to spontaneous growth of many garden specimens such as staghorn ferns (Platycerym sp.)
The semitropical climate is friendly to spontaneous growth of many garden specimens such as Staghorn ferns (Platycerym sp.)
 young specimen of the Kauri Pine (Agathis australis) a tree species native to Australia and New Zealand that in the wild is one of the largest trees in the world.
Young specimen of the Kauri Pine (Agathis australis) – a tree species native to Australia and New Zealand that in the wild is one of the largest trees in the world.
The two cousins Agathis australis (left) and the Auracaria sp. (right with flat top) both notable specimens and members of the Araucariaceae family. Araucariaeceae is a fascinating family that is a member Antarctic floral kingdom finding related species in southern temperate zones such as New Zealand, Patagonia, and Southern Ocean Islands
The two cousins Agathis australis (left) and the Auracaria sp. (right with flat top) both notable specimens and members of the Araucariaceae family.  Araucariaeceae is a fascinating family that is a member of Antarctic floral kingdom finding related species in southern temperate zones such as New Zealand, Patagonia, and Southern Ocean Islands
Ficus religiosa –  The tree species that Buddah was said to have reached enlightenment while meditation underneath its branches
Ficus religiosa – the tree species by which the Buddha was said to have reached enlightenment  underneath its branches while meditation
A young Baobab tree (Adansonia digitata). An African tree species found in dry climate savannah in north east South Africa and extending northward in range. It is notable for growing to extremely large sizes in diameter (One of the worlds largest) and adapt to dry regions.
A young Baobab tree (Adansonia digitata) – an African tree species found in dry climate savannahs in north east South Africa and extending northward in range. It is notable for growing to extremely large sizes in diameter (one of the world’s largest) and adapted to dry regions
Durban BG had an interesting array of sculptural art throughout the garden. This piece as well as a few others across the garden are old tree stumps that were left in place and carved directly on site into sculptures.
Durban Botanical Garden has an interesting array of sculptural art throughout the garden. This piece as well as a few others across the garden are old tree stumps that were left in place and carved directly on site into sculptures.

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The Cannon Ball Tree (Couroupita guianensis) Watch your head!
The Cannon Ball Tree (Couroupita guianensis) – watch your head!
Flower of the Cannon Ball Tree (Couroupita guianensis)
Flower of the Cannon Ball Tree (Couroupita guianensis)
A specimen of the Kosi Bay Palm (Raphia australis) which boasts the largest leaves of any plant in the world. Raphia australis is the only palm tree native to South Africa and is monocarpic, meaning it flowers only once in its life.  ( 6ft+ Homo sapian at bottom right for scale)
A specimen of the Kosi Bay Palm (Raphia australis) –  which boasts the largest leaves of any plant in the world.  Raphia australis is the only palm tree native to South Africa and is monocarpic, meaning it flowers only once in its life (6ft+ Homo sapian at bottom right for scale)

Great Trek - North East

Drakensburg

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Kruger National Park

Kruger National Park is in South Africa’s Savannah biome and characterized by the grassland vegetation with sparse trees cover. Major drivers of the ecology of this biome are minimal rainfall, fire and grazing by hordes of large animals.  This biome is the largest in South Africa comprising almost 50% of the land area and is what is famed to support the iconic large populations of classic African fauna including lions, elephants, panthers, rhinos, giraffes and hippos.  This biome extends north into the adjacent countries in Africa including Botsawana, Namibia and Zimbabwe.  Development of land in this biome as been kept to a minimum likely from the unsuitability for farming, the lack of reliable water and the presence of malaria in the area.

Savanna landscape
Savannah landscape
Adansonia digitata - The worlds southern most Boabab Tree
Adansonia digitata – the world’s southernmost Boabab Tree
Adansonia digitata - Boabab Tree
Adansonia digitata – Boabab Tree
Adansonia digitata - Boabab Tree
Adansonia digitata – Boabab Tree
Typical Savanna vegetation with grasslands and sparse tree cover
Typical Savannah vegetation with grasslands and sparse tree cover
Arborists! Oh I mean Giraffes
Arborists! Oh, I mean giraffes
The unusual fruits of the sausage tree (Kigelia Africana)
The unusual fruits of the Sausage tree (Kigelia Africana)
Sausage tree (Kigelia Africana) from afar
Sausage tree (Kigelia Africana) – from afar

Walter Sizulu National Botanical Garden

Walter Sizulu National Botanical Garden is situated in the sprawling urban center of Johannesburg.  With its metropolitan location, it is  the second most visited garden in the country next to Kirstenbosch.  I had the privilege of touring the collection with Assistant Curator Andrew Hankey, both a kind and fascinating individual with extensive plant and natural history knowledge of South Africa. Andrew has been with the Garden since the late 1980’s, less than a decade after the Garden was established.  With much of the Garden’s improvements occurring within the last 30 years of his tenure, it was a privilege to have the landscape interpreted through one of its principle developers.

Walter Sizulu is tucked in away in a small river valley flanked by cliff sides and sloping hills that are managed as nature reserves adjacent to the Garden.  After driving through suburban sprawl and neighborhoods protected by a maze of high, barbed wire and electric fencing, arrival in the tranquil environment of the Garden is a stark contrast to the area’s surroundings.  The Garden is located in a steep valley with cascading waterfalls, wandering rivers and steep cliff faces.  Acting in a similar manner as the trails that meander Ithaca’s gorges, such as Cascadilla or Six Mile Creek, the contrasting topography of steep slopes and gorges effectively acts as a façade, transporting the visitor out of the built environment and into a wild world.  It is no surprise that this garden has become an urban oasis.

Waterfall and flanking cliffs on the western extent of the garden
Waterfall and flanking cliffs on the western extent of the garden

The Garden is designed around the river whose path playfully wanders throughout the extent of the Garden.  The source of the river is a cascading waterfall on the eastern extent of the property, which acts a reference point and is an iconic feature of the Garden. In an effort to intersperse the natural environment with the cultivated, the Garden’s development attempted to find a balance between the two extremes.  As a general rule, if pathways and gardens were designed in close proximity to one side of the river, the area directly on the opposite side of the river was not developed. The intent has been to keep corridors available for the plant and animal life to be able to connect to this important water source, move freely, and have access to the Garden’s larger natural areas on its fringes.  This naturalistic design provides both an ecosystem service to the biota of the region and also gives the Garden a playful feel, keeping the visitors engaged by tempting them to explore and find out what secrets are hidden beyond the next bend in the river.

Pathway along the river
Pathway along the river
Wildlife corridors adjacent to river
Wildlife corridors adjacent to river
View of the garden valley from gardens bird hide
View of the garden valley- from gardens bird hide

The Garden focuses on both researching and growing the native flora and has also done a magnificent job at designing a number of interesting gardens to draw in the public’s attention.  More formalized features include an arboretum, water wise garden, succulent garden, muti (medicinal) garden, fitness garden, geological garden, grasslands garden, children’s garden and cycad garden.

DSC 0365 – Water Wise Garden
Water Wise Garden
Podocarpus collection in the Arboretum
Podocarpus collection in the Arboretum
Johannesburg experiences winter frost which challenges many of the tree species attempted to grow in the garden. Visible dieback in this picture is from winter cold damage.
Johannesburg experiences winter frost which challenges many of the tree species attempting to be grown in the Garden. Visible dieback in this picture is from winter cold damage.
Grassland garden featuring flora from the grasslands that a major flora community in the east central portion of the country
Grassland garden featuring flora from the grasslands that are a major flora community in the east central portion of the country
Succulent garden mostly focusing on plants from the summer rainfall region in the eastern part of the country. Summer rainfall succulents tend to make better garden subjects comparatively to the succulents plants found in winter rainfall region of the western part of the country.
Succulent garden – mostly focusing on plants from the summer rainfall region in the eastern part of the country.  Summer rainfall succulents tend to make better garden subjects compared to the succulent plants found in the winter rainfall region of the western part of the country.
The fitness garden – an unusual and unconventional garden feature that is apparently popular with visitors providing an outdoor gym space and driving gate admissions.
The fitness garden – an unusual and unconventional garden feature that is apparently popular with visitors providing an outdoor gym space and driving gate admissions.
The muti or traditional medicine garden
The muti or traditional medicine garden
Children’s Garden
Children’s Garden
Entrance to the geologic garden – This garden using large rocks from the surrounding area to walk visitors throughout the geologic history of the earth. These boulders themselves are the dominate feature of the garden with the plantings only adding interest to the main geologic subjects.
Entrance to the geologic garden – this garden uses large rocks from the surrounding area to walk visitors throughout the geologic history of the earth. These boulders themselves are the dominate feature of the garden with the plantings  add interest to the main geologic subjects.
The geology of South Africa is one of the largest determiners of where population centers have developed informing the agricultural, horticultural, live stock and extractive industries of the country.  This garden brings to light the varying mineralogy of the country giving context to the biotic communities that have developed from the stones pedological transformation to soils
The geology of South Africa is one of the largest determinants of where population centers have developed, informing the agricultural, horticultural, live stock and extractive industries of the country. This garden brings to light the varying mineralogy of the country giving context to the biotic communities that have developed from the stone’s pedological transformation to soils
Witwatersand Gold Bearing reaf – Mining has been a major extractive industry in South Africa over the last century. Gold
Witwatersand Gold Bearing reef – mining has been a major extractive industry in South Africa over the last century.  Gold.
Petrified wood towards the end of the walk
Petrified wood – towards the end of the walk

As with other national botanical gardens, some of the most interesting plants that are of research or conservation value are kept in the nurseries behind the scenes in the formal “collection”.  Walter Sizulu Gardens was no exception.  Vast holdings of succulents focusing on genera of the summer rainfall region were tightly packed into one of the larger greenhouse facilities.  Far less precisely order as the contrast Karoo Botanical Gardens, Walter Sizulu had no shortage of fascinating succulent genera and diversity representing the mind boggling diversity of the country.

Succulent Greenhouse
Succulent greenhouse
A 12 year old hybrid of the Aloe dichotoma and Aloen barberae. This cross grows extremely quickly and giving the impression of the slow growing Quiver Tree (Aloe dichotoma) native to the winter rainfall region in the north western cape.
A 12 year old hybrid of the Aloe dichotoma and Aloen barberae – this cross grows extremely quickly and gives the impression of the slow growing Quiver Tree (Aloe dichotoma) native to the winter rainfall region in the north western cape
Ledebouria in bloom
Ledebouria in bloom
This Ledebouria leaf secretes a sticky substance that a causes sand and soil to stick to the leaf, perhaps an adaptation to prevent grazing of the small leaves
This Ledebouria leaf secretes a sticky substance that causes sand and soil to stick to the leaf, perhaps an adaptation to prevent grazing of the small leaves

One of the primary plant conservation efforts the Walter Sizulu is working on is the preservation of Dioscorea strydomiana a member of the yam family (Dioscoreaceae).  This species was only recently discovered (2003) and described (2010).  Wild populations are under threat because they are subject grazing from large animals as well as collection for traditional African medicine.  Less than 200 individuals of this species are known to exists in the wild.  It is recognized by Royal Botanical Gardens Kew as one of the most endangered plants in the world.  In an effort to preserve the species, Andrew and the Garden have been busy working on developing horticultural practices to grow the plant in ex-situ collections.  The effort is to both see if the plant can be grown horticulturally to provide a medicine source without wild collecting as well as to establish new populations in a cooperating nature reserve.   One of the hardest challenges with cultivation of medicinal plants for the Muti markets (traditional plant medicine markets) is the perception by the public that plants grown in cultivation don’t possess the same medicinal properties as wild collected ones.  This is a similar belief to the traditional medicine practices in China where people believe that the more scarce the plant the more powerful it is.  To some extent this has actually been proven true by the fact that plants grown in cultivation oftentimes are growing in ideal conditions. Often many of the medicinal compounds found in these plants develop as secondary metabolites that are generated in greater concentration in response to stressful conditions.  This poses a particular challenge, but not an insurmountable one, as it pushes the horticulturalist to grow plants under “controlled” stressed environments.

Growth medium trails for Dioscorea strydomiana to determine best protocols.
Growth medium trials for Dioscorea strydomiana to determine best protocols

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Dioscorea strydomiana Five years after sowing. Visible growth of the tuber at the base of the plants can be observed by this point in its life cycle. In the back center is an older specimen.  Note the phenotypic and biomass difference across the seed lot.
Dioscorea strydomiana – five years after sowing. Visible growth of the tuber at the base of the plants can be observed by this point in its life cycle. In the back center is an older specimen. Note the phenotypic and biomass difference across the seed lot.

And now, last but not least, just a few more pictures of interesting specimens from the collection.

 outlandishly striking blooms of Jamesbrittenia bergae
Outlandishly striking blooms of Jamesbrittenia bergae
An assortment of the cute and quirky Euphorbia bupleurifolia
An assortment of the cute and quirky Euphorbia bupleurifolia
Encephalartos transvenosus – A tree cycad known to grow as a single population forming a dense “forest” in the Modjadji region of Limpopo.
Encephalartos transvenosus – a tree cycad known to grow as a single population forming a dense “forest” in the Modjadji region of Limpopo
A massive Ensete vetricosum in from the Musaceae (Banana) family. Known to be monocarpic (Flowering once, setting seed and dying)
A massive Ensete vetricosum in from the Musaceae (Banana) family – known to be monocarpic (flowering once, setting seed and dying)
The landscape was adorned with a plethora of Celtis africana forming beautiful shade trees throughout the garden. The genus has related species in North America such as Celtis occidentalis which can be found locally in Ithaca.
The landscape was adorned with a plethora of Celtis africana forming beautiful shade trees throughout the garden. The genus has related species in North America such as Celtis occidentalis which can be found locally in Ithaca.
This ones for you Bill Miller! A mass planting of Ornitholagum sp. Making for an excellent native ornamental bulb and one that is often found when botanizing throughout the velds (fields) of South Africa
This one’s for you, Bill Miller!  A mass planting of Ornitholagum sp. making for an excellent native ornamental bulb and one that is often found when botanizing throughout the velds (fields) of South Africa
The Dancing Couple
The Dancing Couple
A tree that was struck by lighting killing half of it and one of South Africa’s many interesting arboricultural interventions.
A tree that was struck by lighting killing half of it and one of South Africa’s many interesting arboricultural interventions
Another interesting arboricultural attempts to save this cracked Celtis Africana.
Another interesting arboricultural attempts to save this cracked Celtis Africana.
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